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Interview with Johnny Graham
Lead Guitarist for Earth, Wind & Fire

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Johnny Graham is most well-known as a member of Earth, Wind & Fire during the peak period of the group's career, 1972-1982. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from BET Network, and won six Grammy Awards and four American Music Awards. The group has received 16 Grammy nominations and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Johnny has also performed with The Chi-Lites, The Originals, Maceo and All The King's Men, L.A. All-Stars, and recorded with such artists as Pattie Labelle, Ramsey Lewis, Lalo Shiffrin and The New Birth. Presently, Johnny lives in Japan, where he has performed with several groups, including Soul Sauce. Johnny also performs with his own musical entity, The Johnny Graham Show.

Dan Richards: Johnny, how's life treating you in Japan, and what led to your moving there?

Johnny Graham: Things are lively in Japan. Everyone is always busy and in a hurry. "Chop-chop-chop!" The Japanese people are actually party animals. When a lot of them get off their jobs, It's Party Time! Japan is filled with countless numbers of clubs. Shot bars, hostess clubs, discos, hard rock clubs, trance clubs, jazz clubs, etc. And a lot of concerts featuring artists from the USA.

I first came to Japan in the seventies with EW&F, but I didn't return to Japan until 1993 ‚ for a short tour with the L.A. All Stars. After that tour, the following month I returned to Japan for a six-month stay playing at a nightclub in Nagoya, Japan. After that, I just kept coming back to Japan and loving it. I started playing at a club in Osaka in December of 1995 and played at that same club on and off for four years. I married a Japanese Lady in 1997 ‚ so here I am in Osaka.

Any new cuisine you've been enjoying?

I'm not eating any different than I did in the USA. I started eating Sushi before I ever came to Japan in the seventies. I tend to eat a good deal of Thai food ‚ that's my favorite here in Japan and in the U.S. I speak very little Japanese. I haven't put much effort into learning to speak Japanese. One can get around pretty easily here with just English. I very rarely work with Japanese musicians so there is no problem in that area. (And I do think that the Japanese people are more so party animals than Americans.)

Tell us a little about how you got started in music from what, I imagine, was a young age? Who were your music heroes?

My first experience with music was singing in the elementary school chorus. (I had a very good voice back then ‚ I wish that I had kept it up. My singing would be much better than it is now.)

I started playing trumpet when I was in the sixth grade and continued on trumpet through three semesters of college. I was turned on to guitar when I was about 15. My next door neighbor, who was about 35, played guitar. He would just play these honky tonk/blues rhythms all through the night. And he would let bands rehearse in his house ‚ so his house was like a rehearsal studio. I would go over there and watch the guys playing guitar. One day my neighbor got a new guitar and threw his old one in the trash. I quickly grabbed up that old guitar. The guitar only had two tuning machines on it, so I played a guitar with only two strings for a couple of months. I purchased my first electric guitar from a pawn shop ‚ it was a Kingston. I started playing in clubs very soon after getting the Kingston guitar ‚ before I was 16.

The guitarists that I was into back then were Freddy King, Albert King, George Benson, Wes Montgomery, and later Jimi Hendrix. I'm also a big fan of James Brown and Bobby Womack. Yngwie Malmsteen is also one of my favorites. (I know a lot of guitarists like to put Yngwie down, but Yngwie is "The Man!")

And what led to your becoming a member of EW&F?

Back in Kentucky, where I was raised, I played with some friends who later became a group named New Birth. I played with the New Birth on dates around the Midwest occasionally, but when the New Birth started doing serious time on the road, I was in electronic school and stayed home in Louisville. One day in 1972, I got a call from this guy named Maurice White; he told me that the guys in the New Birth had told him about me and he wanted me to come to Hollywood and join his group called Earth, Wind & Fire. I had never heard of this group and I was the top student in my class at the electronics institute, so I told Maurice, "No man, I can't come to Hollywood ‚ I'm in school right now." But three days later, I called Maurice back and told him to send me a ticket. So, that's how I got into EW&F.

Johnny, that would have been right at a crucial time, and you were part of a line-up change resulting in EW&F's 1973 release, "Head To The Sky," which is generally acknowledged as the beginning of EW&F's "modern" sound. Tell us a little about the time right after flying out to Hollywood and the atmosphere during the initial formation of the new line-up. How was the interpersonal chemistry?

When I first arrived in Hollywood I stayed with Maurice at his house in West Hollywood. It was a big difference being in Hollywood than being in Kentucky! Hollywood was a trip! It was like being in a cartoon world. "HOLLYWEIRD!" This was the first time that I had played with a group in which I didn't know any of the musicians ‚ not one of them! Maurice was older and much more experienced than all the rest of us in the group, so we were for the most part wide-eyed school kids ‚ learning the ropes.

The first time I played with the guys it was with only Maurice on drums and Verdine on bass in a rehearsal studio. (Maurice wanted to feel me out ... a lot of folks don't know that Maurice is a drummer.) Maurice really blew me away ‚ he was the wildest drummer I'd ever seen. This guy played drums like a madman. He played drums like a lion chasing its prey.

Did Al McKay join EW&F right at the same time as you?

When I arrived on the scene, guitarist Roland Batista had recently left the group to pursue a solo career. I think Roland had only been with the group a few months. But sometime before I played with the group, Al McKay had done some dates with the group. But Al didn't stay around long ‚ he was playing with Isaac Hayes and was committed to that gig. I think that it was near the end of 1972 when Al had finished his stint with Isaac Hayes that he returned to EW&F.

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